Perfectionists and the Gospel

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matt. 5:48)

This is a pretty tall order, and it comes directly from Jesus right in the scriptures. There is also a culture in the church of striving for perfection in our lives. And while any member of the church will concede that the only way to reach such this impossible standard is through the atonement of Jesus Christ, most will state that we must continually expend tremendous effort to progress towards perfection. All your heart, might, mind and strength as it goes.

I have a problem however. I am not a perfectionist by nature, and I see certain problems with perfectionists. And this makes me wonder if I need an attitude and perspective adjustment.

Perfection is in the details, both nitty and gritty. Unfortunately getting into the itsy bitsy details can cause one to miss the big picture. The Pharisees seemed to be quite detail oriented, and they were missing the big picture. I would like to give a few examples from my personal life that may illustrate what I am getting at.

When I sweep and mop the kitchen floor I may, or may not, remove the kitchen chairs. I will hurriedly sweep, and just as hurriedly mop. I will then replace the chairs, if I took them out, and I declare myself done. The whole thing takes about 15 minutes tops, and I can then move on to the next chore on the list. Or better yet go golfing.

When my wife sweeps and mops the kitchen floor it is a different task altogether. She removes most everything from the kitchen, and very carefully attempts to do a perfect job of it. She has often spent several minutes scrubbing a spot by hand only to find out that the spot is a dent or cut in the linoleum. When she does this chore it takes two or three hours. She does a much better job of this task than I do, but may end up getting less tasks done in a day. If she doesn’t feel like she has time to do a perfect job she may not do it at all. She is like this with scrap booking, Relief Society invitations, and many other things. She won’t let me touch the laundry.

Life is more complex than moping a floor. It seems to me that if we are serious about striving for perfection we must become extremely detail oriented. And the closer to perfection we get, the more picky we must become. We may need to become highly self critical, desperately seeking for any possible flaw, and thoroughly repent of it. To achieve perfection, one would need to be obsessive about it. I do not believe that, however long my wife might spend on mopping the floor, that she will ever do a perfect job of it. That is why I do a quick job of it and move on.

I am afraid that perfectionists, and people influenced by them, may fall for the pitfalls of false inadequacy, exaggerated imperfections, and needless guilt. Elder Anthony Perkins of the Seventy gave what I consider a great and important talk on these pitfalls in the October 2006 General Conference here. False inadequacy, exaggerated imperfections, and needless guilt are very effective tools of Satan that can drag us down. I would think that perfectionists would be particularly susceptible to these things. I think there are many in the church, perhaps even some in my own family, who have gone inactive over such feelings as these.

As with many things, one should have a balance. There are two extremes that make up the end conditions of this equation. One end is the obsessive hypercritical perfectionist that is so involved in the details that they miss the big picture. The other end may be the lazy, unmotivated, drifter who basically coasts through life. Neither one feels right to me. Something in the middle perhaps.

So how much of a perfectionist should we be when it comes to self evaluation and repentance, and how do we avoid stirring up false inadequacy, exaggerated imperfections, and needless guilt?

Elder Perkins suggests five things:

See yourself as a child of God.

Place your burdens on Christ.

Forgive yourself.

Sustain a hope in eternal life.

Find joy each day.

Does this list seem satisfying? They seems simple enough that even someone who struggles with a lack of motivation sometimes can accomplish them. Are they satisfying to the perfectionist?

I believe that the gospel is much more simple than we make it sometimes. If there is anyone out there who has lost hope of eternal life because they have felt inadequate or guilty, I would encourage you to read Elder Perkins talk and consider his advice and pray about it. Don’t let these feelings, whether they come from yourself or someone else, stop you from having the type of happy life that the gospel can bring.

7 Responses to “Perfectionists and the Gospel”

  1. 1 Michelle April 26, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    I’m a perfectionist by NATURE. In other words, my natural woman wants to be perfect, and wants to do it on her own. When she doesn’t, she struggles, she gets depressed, she feels overwhelmed. Perfectionism is not what we should be striving for. It’s being perfect in Christ (Moroni 10:32-33).

    I believe (although I haven’t figured out exactly how this works) that the answer to this also lies in Ether 12:27. We are not to sit and list the nitpicky things we need to change. As we strive to come to Christ (that is the rub, the sometimes-hard-to-pin-down-in-practical-life key), then HE will show us what else we have to work on. As we see those nitpicky details (which will become more detailed as we come closer to Christ, becoming more like Him), we will either get depressed or be humbled, so we will rely on/come to Christ even more. The key to either laziness or hyper-perfectionism is to remember Him, come to Him, seek to be like Him, but letting HIM help us figure out the next steps through the Spirit, not flaggelating ourselves with whatever else we are still lacking.

    There’s the theory. Now if I can figure it out in practice, my overwhelmed, inadequate, guilty, imperfect self can disappear and I can actually find peace in grace.

  2. 2 Eric Nielson April 26, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    Thanks Michelle. I often struggle to try and figure out what type of person to be. I am so accepting and tolerant – even of myself. I so often let minor imperfections slide in myself and others. This is good sometimes and maybe bad other times.

    I think there are examples of Christ in both areas. A ‘Go thy way and sin no more’ tolerance, and a more strict side as well. It is hard to know what is best in every situation.

  3. 3 Michelle April 26, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    Yes, it is. That is why I think we need to let the Lord help us know, not try to come up with any kind of blanket anything. For each person, it will be different, ya know?

  4. 4 onelowerlight May 9, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    If you think about it, both extremes in the example you gave–the apathetic drifter and the hyperperfectionist pharisee–both place too much of an emphasis on the letter of the law. The pharisee gets so detail oriented that all he can see is the letter of the law, but the one who always toes the line and tries to figure out how far he can go is also much too focused on the letter of the law. It’s not just the pharisees that lose the spirit by focusing too much on the details.

    The list that you gave seems to hit the nail right on the head. It’s practical, simple, and very clear as to how to implement it. Thanks.

  5. 5 Eric Nielson May 9, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    Thanks for your comment onelowerlight.

    But don’t thank me for the list, that comes courtesy of Elder Perkins.

  6. 6 Belladonna August 8, 2007 at 9:56 am

    I think one of this issues is how we interpret the word “perfect.” Our current understanding of the word is that it means without flaw of any kind. I have been told that before the industrial age when machines began ruling so much of our lives, the word was used to mean “complete”, “whole” or “fully organized”. It’s a subtle, set significant distinction.

    What is it that God really expects of us?

    We are NOT weak and prone to mistakes because Heavenly Father ran out of the good juju juice when he created us. Our frailities are DELIBERATE. They are hard wired into our system. He never expected usd to not falter. What He is asking is for us to learn how to completely rely on HIM when we do.

    In my mind, the Lord has set us down in this fallen mortal world full of vanity and avarice with the specific challenge that we will learn how to give back to Him the ONLY thing that really belongs to us anyway – our will.

    He knows we will make mistakes. It’s in our recipe. The whole plan of salvation would be rather pointless if we didn’t make mistakes. The important thing isn’t how far or how often we fall. The thing that matters is whether or not we get back up, and whose face we turn to when we do.

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